Where do we begin? A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Dome at St. John's Church. Still not retractable
The Dome at St. John’s Church. Still not retractable

Where do we begin? I find myself focused this morning on beginnings. “In the beginning,” the first words of the Bible. Really, the first word. “Berishit” in Hebrew, just one word. “In the beginning.”

Mark’s Gospel also centers on a beginning. Mark, as usual, wastes no time. John announces “one is coming after me,” and lo, he comes. Jesus appears in the wilderness of the Jordan, to be baptized by John. This is Jesus’ IPO, his initial public offering. Jesus is all grown up and the ministry begins with baptism.

Beginnings are radically important. I work with twenty-somethings a great deal in my work as “Missioner for Young Adult and College Ministry” for The Episcopal Church. And twenty somethings are understandably about the most ANGSTY group of people you’ll ever meet. At least I was an angsty twenty-something. If you’re honest, I bet you were too.

Twenty somethings are angsty, because they are at the beginning of their adult lives. They are making a lot of really important decisions for the first time. I love working with twenty-somethings because every choice matters a great deal. Think about it, the decisions you make in your twenties shape your whole life. Where to work, who to marry, where to settle down. These are huge decisions, and a lot of these tracks begin in your twenties. So twenty-somethings can be an angsty bunch. Now, I don’t want to leave out those of us who have survived our twenties, because I know I can still be angsty, especially when I’m facing an important beginning.

Beginnings are important. Beginnings matter. Where do you begin?

Had he lived, Dr. King would have been 86 years old this week. He was killed at forty. Imagine if all he accomplished had only been the beginning of his work. Imagine if Dr. King could’ve come to Ferguson this summer to exhort our region to nonviolent witness. Imagine if Dr. King could have come back to this Cathedral last summer, 50 years after his first sermon here, to remind us that we must “learn to live together as brothers, or perish as fools.”

Throughout his ministry, Dr. King asked us all to consider our beginnings? Where do you begin? The pragmatists of his day wanted Martin to slow down, to consider the deep divides of race and class, the intractability of racial bias. Two Episcopal Bishops in Alabama signed an open letter addressing Dr. King’s visit to Birmingham in 1963. They saw Dr. King as an outsider, and asked him not to protest in their streets. After the protest he replied to their letter with a letter of his own. He wrote them “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King’s letter would become legendary, and Dr. King’s letter is all about beginnings.

Dr. King’s letter explains that he doesn’t consider himself an outsider. He begins somewhere else. Dr. King wrote famously “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He goes on “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Dr. King could have been talking about baptism. King’s framework was informed by Christian Baptismal theology. He was taught, in church, that we are all tied together in one body.

Dr. King’s letter was partly addressed to a couple of Episcopal Bishops, and it has been read by many more Anglicans. I would love to ask the former Archbishop of Canterbury whether MLK’s letter influenced his own teaching on Baptism. Dr. Rowan Williams wrote that baptism involves us in “solidarities not of our own choosing.” Both Dr. King and Rowan Williams talk about the inconvenient beginning that we face. We don’t choose our solidarities. We can’t escape our network of mutuality.

Baptism is the sacrament of beginning, and baptism reminds us that we all begin in the same place. We are all, all of us, children of God. We all belong to the created order. We belong to creation. Baptism reminds us where we start. You can’t choose your family. We keep trying. We keep trying to separate ourselves one from another. We keep trying to say to one another: you don’t matter to me, and we exclude one another to our peril. “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or [we will] perish like fools.”

Today as we baptism Gloria Dean, we go back to the beginning. We remember the Church’s teaching that we all begin in the same place. We will pledge ourselves again, in the Baptismal Covenant to work for justice and peace. We’ll promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Those promises are tied to baptism because they are where we begin as Christians. We begin by understanding that we are all, all of us, created in the image and likeness of God. Not some, all. Not just the “good” people. Not just the white people. Not just the so-called straight people. Not just the men. Not just those whose biological sex matches their gender identity. Not just the English-speaking. Not just the American citizens. Not just the able bodied. Not just the rich. Not just the powerful. Against every division we have invented and enforced in our human society, Baptism invites us to return to God’s beginning. We are all created in God’s image. We are all, all of us, loved by God. That’s where we begin.

I like to call this little story from Mark “Jesus’ IPO,” his Initial Public Offering. This is where Jesus begins in Mark’s Gospel. It seems Jesus’ first public act is sorta passive. Jesus’ first action verb? Jesus HEARS. He HEARs the voice of God. Before he acts, he hears.  Before he heals, he hears.  Before he teaches, before he stirs up trouble, before he calls disciples, before he walks on water, before everything else Jesus hears God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”

“Well pleased with WHAT?” we might ask. We want a public record. We want to see a resumé. We want to weigh accomplishments. WHAT had Jesus done that was PLEASING to God at this point? In the Gospel, nothing. BEFORE he acts, he hears. BEFORE he does anything of note, before he does anything worth writing down, he hears this voice of love and affirmation. Jesus doesn’t do ANYTHING to merit God’s love. God starts loving Jesus, accepting Jesus, before he gets anything done. God doesn’t wait for Jesus to act before he announces his love, his approval.

Friends, this is the Gospel: before Jesus does anything he has God’s love and approval. Before we do anything, we have God’s love and approval. We don’t merit God’s love. We don’t win it through good behavior. We begin our lives loved and accepted by God. We spend our lives, at least I have spent a good part of my life, trying to let go of my own stuff to accept God’s acceptance, God’s love. You are already loved, already accepted by God.

My former church in Washington had a beautiful dome. The church was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the first great American architect, designer of the US Capitol. My former rector liked to joke with the congregation that he wished he could get permission from the Historical Society to make the dome retractable. I see some shudders from the history buffs. Don’t worry, I’m sure it was just a sermon illustration.

My rector didn’t want a retractable dome because he wanted to be like the Dallas Cowboys. He didn’t want a retractable dome so that he could try to lure the St. Louis Rams to DC. (Though “the Rams” is a better name for a team than the one they continue to use for the team in Washington).

My rector wanted a retractable dome for baptism Sundays. He also wanted a Steven Spielberg sized special effects budget (which somehow he could never convince the vestry give him). Every time there was a baptism, he wanted the dome to open, and a hologram of a dove to float down over the font, and a deep voice to come over the loud speaker: “This is my beloved child, with this child I am well pleased.”

The words God speaks to Jesus, God speaks to every single one of us. This is where we begin. The sacrament of baptism is a sign of God’s love for us, a sign of our inescapable network of mutuality, a sign of the solidarities not of our choosing. Baptism is a sign that we are one. We are all united as children of God. We exist because God loves us, all of us, into existence.

As a city, as a region, as a country we find ourselves asking “Where do we begin?” And so, I think we are asking the right question. Whether we are in our twenties, and have our whole lives ahead of us, or we are in our eighties and have the whole rest of our lives ahead of us, we are invited this morning to examine our starting point. We are invited to question where we begin with one another. Do we start from the divisions the world creates, or do we begin with the common identity we all share as the beloved children of God.

What if the work of Dr. King was just the beginning? What if the work that started in the streets of Ferguson this summer is the continuation of Brother Martin’s work? How do we begin to see one another, and to treat one another as God’s beloved children? Where do we begin?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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